Tobacco's decline turns sweet life bitter in Carolina

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BATH, N.C. -- Gloria Ormond was 5 and the oldest of four children the spring her father died, leaving a widow who was 24 and pregnant with a fifth child.

Ormond recalls her mama, Charlotte Sutton, saying: "If the tobacco is good this year, we'll be OK."

Sutton emptied one of two bedrooms in their wood house, and during the long, hot months of tobacco harvest, farmers packed the room with cured tobacco. After working days in a sewing factory, Sutton picked up her children from their grandmother and went home to sort tobacco. Her little girl, perched on a splintery stool, worked with her.

By the white light of kerosene lanterns, they worked late into the night, their home filled with tobacco's sweetly pungent scent.

"Our parents always said it smelled like money," says Ormond, now 54 and a grandmother.

Sorting tobacco earned them pennies per pound.

"That's the way we survived," says Ormond, who was 18 when she married a tobacco farmer in 1964 -- the first year the surgeon general said smoking made people sick. "Tobacco kept us going."

Slowly, that reality is changing.

Two years ago, cigarette makers agreed to pay $206 billion to reimburse states for their costs of treating sick smokers. Now, as they harvest a bumper crop, tobacco farmers are reaping the settlement's harsh consequences.

To cover costs of the settlement, cigarette makers raised prices, and cigarette sales plunged, so cigarette makers needed far less tobacco. In North Carolina, the nation's top tobacco producer, tobacco farmers have seen their sales fall $409 million, or 34 percent, in two years. Tobacco sales in South Carolina, a much smaller producer, dropped 40 percent.

Adjustments

For the Ormonds, tobacco's swift decline has meant adjustments large and small. Three years ago, their tobacco sold for nearly $1 million. This year, they had expected to get about $140,000, which would not have been enough to pay farm debts. Then, on July 16, hail destroyed more than half their tobacco.

"There's nothing we can do about it," Gloria Ormond says of the changes reshaping their lives.

Used to be, she loved a sale at Belk because she could find surprise gifts for her children and grandchildren. Now she shops only for essentials and comes home trembling with anxiety about money.

When the freezer broke, they decided to get by without one.

"I wish I had gone on and got an education so I could get a full-time job," she says.

Her husband, Thomas Ormond, 57, talks of the bills they can't pay.

The Ormonds could lose everything, even the brick ranch house he designed, sketching and erasing until he and his wife had their dream home on paper. With the help of nearby relatives, he built the house in 1974. Gloria Ormond and her mother-in-law painted every square inch. The tall front door is mostly glass, looking out on a lush, green field of tobacco. An enclosed porch, 14 feet deep, runs 57 feet along the back of the house.

'What did I do wrong?'

"Lord, what did I do wrong?" Thomas Ormond says.

He did what thousands of North Carolina farmers have done for generations. He built a comfortable life by growing a crop with a guaranteed market and a guaranteed price far above the price of foreign tobacco. Side by side, the Ormonds raised the crop that made North Carolina a leading agricultural economy.

Mounting evidence of tobacco's deadly risks weighs on them. They feel besieged by smoking's critics. But farming is the only life they know, and in the Carolinas, making it as a farmer has long meant growing tobacco.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I heard, 'Tobacco is a thing of the past,'" Gloria Ormond says. "But people kept growing it."

Some farmers already have been forced from the land. Others wonder how much longer creditors will let them try to preserve a lifestyle they consider precious.

"Despite this being one of the best crops I've ever known in North Carolina, this is the most dispirited I've known people to be," says Billy Carter, president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina and a tobacco farmer in Eagle Springs, 90 miles east of Charlotte. "People are looking past this crop to next year and wondering will they be able to survive -- or if they want to."

As demand for domestic tobacco fell, so did tobacco quotas -- the federal limits on how much tobacco U.S. farmers can grow. Quotas for the type of tobacco grown in the Carolinas dropped 45 percent in three years, to the lowest level in the quota program's 60-year history. For farmers, that means a 45 percent pay cut -- and a price war that can be hard for outsiders to follow.

Start by understanding that a lot of tobacco quota -- the right to grow tobacco -- is owned by people who don't farm anymore, maybe never did. They rent their quotas to farmers. But as quotas are cut, they have less to rent, so some are demanding more for what quota they have left. And farmers, desperate to replace lost earnings, are willing to pay the higher rents.

"It's got cutthroat," Gloria Ormond says.

This year, the Ormonds lost 21 acres of tobacco to a farmer who lives 80 miles away. He offered the quota owner higher rent than the Ormonds could afford to pay.

Gloria Ormond doesn't blame the farmer who outbid them.

"Everybody is just trying to survive," she says.

When she was young, Gloria Ormond, like other children helping with tobacco, was allowed to only handle the lowest-quality leaves, what they called trash.

"If you did the trash well enough, you could graduate to the higher grades. About fifth grade, I finally graduated and could tie the green. It was just beautiful tobacco," she says.

In the evening, when the leaves had been sorted and tied into bundles, Ormond and her mother carried the tobacco outside. They laid it in the grassy yard so dew dampened the leaves and kept them from drying and crumbling. At midnight, the whole family carried the tobacco back in for safekeeping.

"Mama said everybody, even the younguns, had to work," Ormond says. "We didn't get allowances. You just worked because that was what you were supposed to do."

Tobacco's long hours

Thomas Ormond, his two brothers and a sister also grew up working tobacco's long hours.

"During tobacco season, we knew we had to work six days a week, from sunup till 5, 6 in the evening," says Ormond, whose speech is salted with the unique accent descended from North Carolina's coastal English settlers in the late 1500s.

Even schools in tobacco country accommodated the crop, opening in late September when harvest was done. But life wasn't all work for a farm kid growing up in coastal Bath, North Carolina's oldest town.

There were 22 neighborhood boys, all about Thomas Ormond's age. When their workday in the fields ended, they got their boats and headed for the water. They played ball in cow pastures, roasted corn in the woods.

"Saturdays, we'd camp out overnight," he says. "We had to come back in time for Sunday school and church."

When the Ormonds married, they farmed, just as their parents and grandparents had done. In the 1980s, to cut their costs for renting tobacco quota, they spent a quarter-million dollars buying tobacco quota. They planned to farm until they retired. Then, they figured, they would rent the quota to other farmers, giving themselves a nice pension.

But now, "We're trying to encourage our son to get out of tobacco," Gloria Ormond says. "We don't want to see him and his wife and family go through what we have, but it's in his blood."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°